A Roman Empire Cruise Such as the Romans Never Had

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OUR expedition was billed as a tour of the Roman Empire on a cruise ship with a level of opulence that the ancient Romans never knew, for unless the passenger was Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt, ancient sea voyages were uncomfortable, flea-bitten and suicidally dangerous if taken in the winter season. The 'Roman Empire' label was only a public relations gimmick. Yet our ship, black-hulled behemoth belonging to Holland America Line, did start its voyage from as close to Rome as it could get, and touched selected ports on the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, all of which had once been within the embrace of the Roman Empire in its heyday. So, on day one of the cruise--on ten-day cruises the first day is spent getting on the ship and the last day getting off--my wife and I arrived at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport, ready to follow the footsteps of the Roman legions that built the Roman Empire, and sail the seas that Roman quinqueremes once sailed.

As the starting point of a cruise, Rome suffers from a shortcoming. It does not have a port. It never did have a satisfactory one, though the Emperor Claudius whom the TV series I, Claudius gave a moment of fame, built one at Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber River, but it soon silted up with the good top-soil that the river brought down from central Italy, and a similar fate befell a second attempt to build a harbour by the Emperor Trajan, under whom the imperial boundaries stretched over as much territory as it ever did. The main port of ancient Rome was Pozzuoli on the Gulf of Naples, more famous nowadays as the birthplace of Sophia Loren, and next door to Naples where the rubbish collectors were on strike. But in the twenty-first century, cruises starting in Rome board ship at Civitavecchia an hour and a half by bus north of Rome airport. The Blue Guide, which is the best guide book to this part of the world, calls Civitavecchia a dismal city, and so it is, but it is satisfactorily distant from Naples and its splendid harbour, where the garbage is piling up for lack of a dump site, and an excess of obstruction by the Mafia.

The Westerdam slipped away from her moorings at nightfall, and next morning, it sailed past the island of Stromboli where the subterranean fires of southern Italy emerge to the earth's surface. Stromboli is in a perpetual state of eruption. At the Strait of Messina where the mainland of Italy seems perpetually poised to kick Sicily with its toe, a pilot came on board to guide our ship through the channel. Here the monsters Scylla and Charybdis dwelt, according to the ancient Greeks who traversed these waters in boats that were hardly more than cockle shells. We sailed through safely, and a day's sailing brought us to Dubrovnik, in the south of Croatia, a country which has emerged from the wreck of Yugoslavia as an independent republic, and a popular tourist destination, particularly tourists who need dental work, for Croatian dentists are well-trained and comparatively cheap.

Empires have passed this way and left their footprints behind. The Roman Empire in its declining years drew a boundary line through the Balkans, thus cutting itself in two for greater efficiency, and this boundary between its eastern and western halves has been a fault line ever since. Croatia is west of it; Serbia to the east. The Roman Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire, which fell prey to the Ottoman Empire of the Turks, then came the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and finally it was the turn of the imperial Soviet Union, which has now fallen like its predecessors. Dubrovnik has survived them all remarkably well, though with some scars. But a word to the wise. Do not join a tour group at Dubrovnik, even though the tours that are offered on board ship sound inviting. Your group will have to compete for space with half a dozen other groups, and you will hear nothing your guide says. Equip yourself with a guide book, sit in one of Dubrovnik's outdoor cafes and when the groups of tourists have charged on to the next attraction with their guides, then go to see what you want. …